Vol. 2, No. 5 – John James Audubon

John James Audubon - Oil on canvas©WikiC (1826)

John James Audubon – Oil on canvas ©WikiC (1826)



OHN JAMES AUDUBON has always been a favorite with the writer, for the invincibleness of his love of Nature and of birds is only equalled by the spontaneous freshness of his style, springing from an affectionate and joyous nature. Recently there was found by accident, in an old calf-skin bound volume, an autobiography of the naturalist. It is entitled “Audubon’s Story of his Youth,” and would make a very pretty book. As introductory to the diaries and ornithological biographies of the birds, it would be very useful.

Two or three incidents in the life of this fascinating character are interesting as showing the influence of the accidental in ultimate achievement.

“One incident,” he says, “which is as perfect in my memory as if it had occurred this very day, I have thought thousands of times since, and will now put on paper as one of the curious things which perhaps did lead me in after times to love birds, and to finally study them with pleasure infinite. My mother had several beautiful parrots, and some monkeys; one of the latter was a full-grown male of a very large species. One morning, while the servants were engaged in arranging the room I was in, ‘Pretty Polly’ asking for her breakfast as usual, ‘Du pain au lait pour le perroquet Mignonne,’ (bread and milk for the parrot Mignonne,) the man of the woods probably thought the bird presuming upon his rights in the scale of nature; be this as it may, he certainly showed his supremacy in strength over the denizen of the air, for, walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird, he at once killed it, with unnatural composure. The sensations of my infant heart at this cruel sight were agony to me. I prayed the servant to beat the monkey, but he, who for some reason, preferred the monkey to the parrot, refused. I uttered long and piercing cries, my mother rushed into the room; I was tranquilized; the monkey was forever afterward chained, and Mignonne buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one. This made, as I have said, a very deep impression on my youthful mind.”

In consequence of the long absences of his father, who was an admiral in the French navy, the young naturalist’s education was neglected, his mother suffering him to do much as he pleased, and it was not to be wondered at, as he says, that instead of applying closely to his studies, he preferred associating with boys of his own age and disposition, who were more fond of going in search of bird’s nests, fishing, or shooting, than of better studies. Thus almost every day, instead of going to school, he usually made for the fields where he spent the day, returning with his little basket filled with what he called curiosities, such as birds’ nests, birds’ eggs, curious lichens, flowers of all sorts, and even pebbles gathered along the shore of some rivulet. Nevertheless, he did study drawing and music, for which he had some talent. His subsequent study of drawing under the celebrated David, richly equipped him for a work which he did not know was ever to be his, and enabled him to commence a series of drawings of birds of France, which he continued until he had upwards of two hundred completed. “All bad enough,” he says, “yet they were representations of birds, and I felt pleased with them.” Before sailing for France, he had begun a series of drawings of the birds of America, and had also begun a study of their habits. His efforts were commended by one of his friends, who assured him the time might come when he should be a great American naturalist, which had such weight with him that he felt a certain degree of pride in the words, even then, when he was about eighteen years of age.

“The store at Louisville went on prosperously, when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight. I shot, I drew, I looked on nature only; my days were happy beyond human conception, and beyond this I really cared not.” [How like Agassiz, who said he had not time to make money.] As he could not bear to give the attention required by his business, his business abandoned him. “Indeed, I never thought of business beyond the ever-engaging journeys which I was in the habit of taking to Philadelphia or New York, to purchase goods; those journeys I greatly enjoyed, as they afforded me ample means to study birds and their habits as I traveled through the beautiful, the darling forests of Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.” Poor fellow, how many ups and downs he had! He lost everything and became burdened with debt. But he did not despair for had he not a talent for drawing? He at once undertook to take portraits of the human head divine in black chalk, and thanks to his master, David, succeeded admirably. He established a large drawing school at Cincinnati, and formed an engagement to stuff birds for the museum there at a large salary.

“One of the most extraordinary things among all these adverse circumstances” he adds, “was, that I never for a day give up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could; nay, during my deepest troubles, I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests; and many a time, at the sound of the wood-thrushes’ melodies, have I fallen on my knees and there prayed earnestly to our God. This never failed to bring me the most valuable of thoughts, and always comfort, and it was often necessary for me to exert my will and compel myself to return to my fellow-beings.”

Do you not fancy that Audubon was himself a rara avis and worthy of admiration and study?

Such a man, in the language of a contemporary, should have a monument in the old Creole country in which he was born, and whose birds inspired his childish visions. It should be the most beautiful work possible to the sculptor’s art, portraying Audubon in the garb he wore when he was proud and happy to be called the “American Woodman,” and at his feet should stand the Eagle which he named the “Bird of Washington,” and near should perch the Mocking Bird, as once, in his description, it flew and fluttered and sang to the mind’s eye and ear from the pages of the old reading book.

C. C. Marble.

Plate 41 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Ruffed Grouse by John J Audubon ©WikiC.

Plate 41 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Ruffed Grouse by John J Audubon ©WikiC.

Lee’s Addition:

Drawings can help one to:

Remember his marvellous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; (Psalms 105:5 KJV)

John James Audubon (Jean-Jacques Audubon) (April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851) was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He was notable for his expansive studies to document all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon identified 25 new species.

Much has been written about John J Audubon, see links below. He is known for his artistic ability and I found this from Wikipedia interesting, though it would have been nice to have not had to kill the birds. Back then, unfortunately, they did not have cameras like we have today with zoom lens and video cameras that could have recorded the details.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John J Audubon ©WikiC

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John J Audubon

“Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. When working on a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. His paintings of birds are set true-to-life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast to the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observations.

He worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercoloring, and sometimes used gouache. All species were drawn life-size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds’ nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him. Going beyond faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon employed carefully constructed composition, drama, and slightly exaggerated poses to achieve artistic as well as scientific effects.” (Wikipedia)


Birds Illustrated by Color Photography – Revisited

The above article is an article in the monthly serial for October 1897 “designed to promote Knowledge of Bird-Live.” These include Color Photography, as they call them, today they are drawings. There are at least three Volumes that have been digitized by Project Gutenberg.

To see the whole series of – Birds Illustrated by Color Photography – Revisited


(Information from Wikipedia and other internet sources)

Next Article – The Summer Tanager

The Previous Article – The Kingbird


Wordless Birds


John James Audubon – Wikipedia

The Birds of America – Wikipedia


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